I suppose you could say it was a whirlwind courtship
. But whirlwinds are violent, full of motion and noise and dust; he was always so gentle. We met in a bar under the blue glow of a television screen. There was sawdust on the floor and I had been crying into an oversized margarita. Alcohol always makes me maudlin. The tv was playing some old movie
where the winsome heroine made a rugged man fall for her despite her wild and unconventional ways. I cried more, the salt on the rim of my margarita
began to dissolve. He tapped me on the shoulder. His hair was so fair that it seemed to glow under the flickering tv screen light
. He smiled apologetically and offered me his handkerchief. It was hand-painted silk. He took me home that night. He was very handsome and I was lonely. I would have done the dirtiest, wickedest things with him and not regretted it at all. But he tucked me into bed like a small child, and sat on the edge and sang me to sleep. We were married three weeks later.
He took me away from my studio apartment with its clutter and dust and folded me into his life. I moved into his beach house. The floors were weathered sandstone and heated from below. The walls were glass and copper; from every room you could see the ocean. There was a library with rare books kept in humidity-controlled cases. I would spend pleasant hours in there reading from old, leatherbound books while he cooked for me downstairs in the sprawling kitchen. He would serve me plump, seared divers scallops or or crispy duck confit and I would devour every bite. After a dessert of poached pears or a cunning, tiny chocolate cake filled with melted Valrhona we would make love or go for a swim in the heated infinity pool. We would cavort like seals; slither around each other like eels. It was a good life.
My life was pleasantly idle. In the mornings I would sometimes hunt for wild strawberries along the shore. We had a beehive, and I would garb myself in netting and harvest the honey flavored by the canyon wildflowers once the bees were lazy and content from the smoke. I would make breakfast; eggs with chives, toast with my honey, wild strawberries if I could find them and the dark, luxurious coffee that came in sacks with the mail. In the evenings I had taken to brushing my hair-- which had grown very long-- for two hundred strokes. My husband had bought me a beautiful baroque vanity table, and I found it pleasurable to sit and stare in the mirror and brush with a heavy, antique hairbrush with an ivory and silver handle. I would hum to myself. We had been married for nearly six months and I was brushing my hair and humming something sad and low when my husband came up behind me and placed his hand where my shoulder was bare. In the mirror I could see the sadness in his smile.
"My love," he said, "We've been together almost constantly since we've met. And nothing would make me happier than if I could stay by your side."
"I can barely remember what my life was like before you," I said, smiling a little at his reflection.
"I have to go away on business. There's a meeting that I need to attend out of the country. This is all very sudden. If it weren't necessary I wouldn't go."
"I'll miss you, of course. When do you go? For how long?"
He sighed, "I need to leave tomorrow. I'll be gone for almost six weeks."
"Such a long time! But you say it is necessary. I'll just count the days until you return."
He slipped the straps of my nightgown down. He kissed my neck over and over again. The hairbrush fell to the sandstone floor with a clatter.
The next morning he handed over the keys to his empire. I would play the châtelaine; I would keep a light burning until his return. He smiled nervously as he explained each keys and its role, "These are the keys to the cars in the garage. They are labelled. This is the key to the city house should you ever decide to go there. The address is in my black book, the code for entry is 2437, you'll need to punch that in at the gate. These are the keys to the private collection in the library. This is the key to my strongbox, there's thirty thousand dollars in cash in there, use it if you need to. Here's the number for the maid service. Here's the number for my financial advisor, call it if you need more money than I've put into your account."
I nodded at all this, and took notes for passwords and codes. He reached into his lapel pocket and pulled out a keycard, like they use in hotels. It was very white. He handed it to me and placed his hand over mine, "My darling, this is the key to the room in the wine cellar. I am trusting you with this -- please don't open it. It contains some very precious things that cannot stand the light for long. These are some things that are most precious to me besides you."
He leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. He said goodbye. I watched his car from the highest window in the house drive down PCH until one of the winds of the road took it out of my sight.
He returns tomorrow. In the six weeks since he has been gone I have thrown parties in the city house. I have bought new wine for the cellar. I have attended art auctions and operas. I have called him every night, although the connection was bad and sometimes I could not hear his voice clearly through the static. I have driven every car in the garage. I relished the speed of the Ferrari and the luxury of the Rolls Royce. I have....
Until tonight I had honored my husband's wishes and not opened the room in the wine cellar. Oh, I have looked at the heavy stainless steel door and wondered at its contents. I have pressed my hand against the cool metal and listened for sounds. But each time I turned away. My husband has asked little of me, how difficult would it be to obey him in this one request? But it is easy to become curious about a secret. "Things that are most precious to me," he said. There is a Gutenberg Bible in the Library. There's a still life by Renoir hanging in the dining room. There's a genuine faience Ushabti from ancient Egypt in one of the guest rooms. What could be more precious than these? And would these precious things really be damaged by a quick look in the dark of the night?
I crept down to the cellar in my nightgown. I was alone in the house but I still moved as silently as I could manage. I moved as if someone was following me. I walked over to the door in the wine cellar. I listened for a moment to its quiet humming, I stared at the display near the handle. It glowed softly red and blinked with information on tempurate and humidity and other numbers that were meaningless to me. I slipped the white keycard into its slot and turned the handle. There was a soft puff of air as the seal was broken and the door swung open. The air escaping was very cold and I shuddered before looking in. I screamed when I saw what was inside. I don't know how many of them were in there, perhaps twelve. They were all lovely women with long hair that trailed down near the floor. They were hanging upside-down by their feet. Their eyes were open and sightless. They were very pale; their lips were pale and their eyes were cloudy. One swayed softly as the temperature control computer attempted to adjust the room against the sudden influx of warm aim. I screamed again. I dropped the keycard down on the floor with a clatter. The floor was brownish-red and covered in a sticky, sweet-smelling goo. Blood. I picked up the keycard and slammed the door shut.
The keycard is no longer very white. It is stained. It has spots that are reddish brown. I have washed it in hot water, I have washed it with bleach. The stains do not come out. I keep scrubbing and scrubbing. My hands are red and raw. There are places where the skin has cracked. There are places where my hands bleed. The keycard is no longer white. He returns tomorrow.